Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Precursors to Morant Bay: The Pattern of Popular Protest in Post-Emancipation Jamaica (1834-1865)

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Precursors to Morant Bay: The Pattern of Popular Protest in Post-Emancipation Jamaica (1834-1865)

Article excerpt

On the night of 8 June 1835, according to the evidence of police sergeant James Dunn, loud noises ("drums, fifes, yellings and shoutings") were heard coming from premises behind the barracks near the racecourse in Spanish Town. The noise had begun at nine o'clock in the evening. Around two hours later, as the volume increased, he and six colleagues went to investigate. They reminded the merry-makers of a previous visit to the same location when the police had been instructed by a special magistrate to prevent such celebrations, and ordered everyone to pack up and go home. They refused point blank, one of them answering that "they were free men and would act as they liked". The police were forced to retreat, being showered with a barrage of brickbats, and were chased back to their barracks by "a crowd of 200 persons at the lowest calculation". The Attorney General, prosecuting this case, referred to several recent meetings in Spanish Town "of turbulent persons, some brown, some black, and probably some white, it mattered not what color they were . . . for he was not proceeding against the color of these persons, but against their acts. . . ", and called on the jury to convict the eight prisoners in the dock. "He did not wish that the diversions of the people should be interfeared [szc] with," he continued, "but he wished that the quiet and respectable inhabitants of the town should be protected. . . . If persons are to be disturbed in that manner during the night . . . instead of this town being the capital of a civilized country, it can be esteemed but nothing else than the capital of some wild savage and uncivilized state." On this occasion, the trial was stopped on the recommendation of the Chief Justice and the eight accused were required to enter into recognizance to keep the peace for six months. Such assemblages, he concluded, "among whom were generally a great number of apprentices, who were kept up during the night and prevented thereby from attending to their work the next day. . .", would be dealt with harshly in the future.1

Although relatively trivial, this affair nonetheless manifested a number of what were to become familiar characteristics of disturbances in the following years: a pronounced hostility on the part of the newly emancipated to the recently formed police force,2 and a determined commitment both to their traditional forms of celebration and entertainment and to their own interpretation of what emancipation should bring. Equally, the authorities responded to the disturbance in a manner and tone which demonstrated their Manichaean view of Jamaican society and their determination to suppress those aspects of Afro-Jamaican behaviour that they hoped would have disappeared with slavery. For them, a few months after the abolition of slavery, the choice was clear: either Afro-Jamaicans must learn the values of a "civilized country", or the colony would relapse into a "wild, savage, and uncivilized state".

Early post-emancipation Jamaica is a period sandwiched by two major revolts: the Christmas Rebellion of 1831-1832 in the western end of the island, and the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 in St Thomas-inthe-East, and it is these two seismic eruptions which have tended to dominate the historiography of the period. Should the various disturbances of the years between 1834 and 1865 be viewed from the perspective of the aftershocks of 1831-1832, or in the context of the origins of 1865? Most scholars have tended to emphasize the elements of continuity between the two, and more generally between slavery and post- slavery. Michael Craton for example in his study of resistance in the Anglophone Caribbean, concluded that the three revolts he examined, in Demerera in 1856, Jamaica in 1865, and Barbados in 1876, "not only demonstrated the frustration of would-be free peasants forced to continue to toil for former owners, but also harked back to the mass outbursts of slave resistance, on the part of rebels and masters alike". …

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